Modern Ayurvedic Self-Care to Cleanse and Nourish the Five Senses
Coming to Ayurveda for the first time can be as daunting as it is exciting. The promise of experiencing more balance and energy with refreshed self-care routines might motivate us out of a rut, but change of any kind is likely to push up against our inherent desire for comfort and familiarity.
This conflict comes up especially in the arena of dinacharya, or the Ayurvedic daily routine.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, we all have a dinacharya—the things we do every day, often related to the hygienic maintenance of our body. From a young age, we’re trained to brush our teeth and comb our hair, make our bed and put on fresh clothes, eat meals and work at certain times. We’re taught to enjoy rest and fun (nap time and recess—for kids or adults!) at other times.
These rituals are so ingrained that many of us don’t think twice about them. We might not be aware of what they’re doing—or not doing—to promote our mental and physical health.
Beyond Getting Clean: The Healing Power of Dinacharya
In their essence, these routines are not too different from the routines that Ayurveda recommends. However, there are a few things that tend to trip people up when first committing to a traditional Ayurvedic dinacharya:
- The sheer fact that they’re different from what we’re used to.
- The tools used to do them, which can be new and unfamiliar.
- Finding the motive that keeps us committed to new habits.
Since a lot of our habits have been with us since childhood, it’s difficult to break those grooves or understand a new or different way of doing them. And yet, after just a week or so of new habits, they become second nature.
It can also be strange to swap out the products in your medicine cabinet for a bevy of new and different herbal oils—the main product used for “cleansing” in Ayurveda. In the West, we often associate oil with the opposite of clean, so the experience of using oil as a means of hygiene can take some getting used to.
That’s where number 3 comes into play—the desire or intention that motivates us to do dinacharya at all.
Per Ayurveda, these practices are meant to be cleansing and to remove built-up waste in the body so we start the day with a strong digestive capacity, or agni.
They’re also meant to be nourishing! Rather than focusing solely on scraping, sloughing, and peeling away gunk or unwanted parts of ourselves, as modern hygiene is often advertised, dinacharya is meant to be a time of quiet intimacy with ourselves.
Our senses are the portals that connect our inner and outer experiences—the channels through which we receive the information and “food” that literally build up our physical and mental existence.
With clear senses, we can choose confidently and with integrity that which will nourish us in the form of foods, activity, and rest. Day by day and moment by moment. The more we begin to experience this, the easier it becomes to continue our daily self-care practices.
The classic texts site that neglecting our senses—over-using, under-using, or mis-using the senses, which is all too easy to do in our age of distraction—is a main cause of disease:
“Hina (inadequate, poor), mithya (improper, perverse) and ati (excess), yoga (association, contact, union) of kala (season), artha (objects of senses) and karma (activities, functions) are the chief causes of diseases; whereas their samyak yoga (proper contact, association) is the chief cause of health.”
The oils we use to wash the channels of the ears, skin, eyes, mouth, and nose help remove waste without depleting our bodies. They allow us to move through the world as soft, resilient creatures who radiate health from our pores, speech, and very being—literally. It is self-care in the form of sense-care.
Ayurveda Meets Modern Life
The benefits of dinacharya are numerous, but embracing the full gamut of the traditional practices is not always practical or necessary, depending on your individual needs.
One of the reasons that dinacharya can be overwhelming to those new to Ayurveda is the expectation that we need to do it all, every single day. And that’s just not true.
Each of us needs different practices depending on our present state of balance and imbalance, the current season, and our various stages of life. Choosing what’s right for us at the right time is part of the mindfulness practice inherent in dinacharya.
Neither are the practices listed in the classic texts the only way to achieve the goals of mindful sense-care. Tending to the senses can happen in a variety of ways.
Every day, make a commitment to your health in a form that appeals to all of you, in every sense. If you have specific concerns or questions about how to personalize your daily routine, please consult a health counselor or practitioner.
Nourishing Self-Care Practices for All Five Senses
Whether you’re brand new to Ayurveda or more seasoned, the following alternatives to the classical dinacharya practices can open your eyes (and ears, nose, mouth, and skin) to new ways of experiencing sense-care.
Traditional practice—Ear Oiling
Alternative practice—Silent Mornings
Our ears are the recipients of so much information, including language, the beeps and bings of our technology, and the noise pollution that infiltrates our modern world.
This constant exposure to sound is having negative effects on our health, most of which we can understand through Ayurveda as imbalanced vata dosha.1
In Ayurveda, the ears are associated with the space or ether element, one of the elements that makes up vata. Therefore, they can be easily aggravated by excess stimulation that results in vata imbalances like anxiousnness, poor concentration, difficulty sleeping, and difficulties with hearing itself.
At the same time, the quality of what we take in through our ears can also be disturbing, negative, or even hate-filled, as opposed to loving and sattvic sounds that nourish this sensory channel.
This exposure impresses upon the nervous system feelings of unsafety and danger, which activates the stress response and further vitiates vata.
The traditional practice of placing an herbal oil like Ear Oil in the ears and gently massaging it in helps counteract vata that can accumulate inside the ears. The oil can also help to soften and dislodge waxy buildup or other obstructions in the ears that make it hard to hear.
Listen Deeply with Silent Mornings
As an alternative to this practice, we can also simply remove the cause of the imbalance—the preferred way of going about things in Ayurveda.
It’s rare, perhaps impossible, to experience pure silence in our world. But we can find moments in our day to choose silence. We can say no to sound in the form of music, the TV droning in the background, podcasts and meetings streaming in through headphones, or any other noise-making machines.
A quiet evening can be just as supportive to prepare for deep, easeful sleep. Listening for the harmony that is inherent in nature outside and within you can remind you that you are whole and integrated in a larger system, soothing your body and mind.
Traditional practices—Garshana and Abhyanga
Alternative practice—Cuddle Time
Skin care has been a cornerstone of the beauty and wellness industry for decades, if not centuries. Typically, it comes with a focus on aesthetics and meeting arbitrary cultural standards of beauty.
In Ayurveda, we turn beauty outside-in with skin care regimens that are geared toward helping the skin function at its best as an organ of digestion and elimination. When these functions run smoothly, our skin glows with ojas.
The traditional dinacharaya practices offer both cleansing and nourishment to the skin, depending on what you need. Garshana, or dry-brushing, is stimulating and lightening, helping to move stagnation and dullness out of the skin.
Abhyanga, or warm oil massage, is the counterpart—this ritual is all about soothing the nervous system, which will also improve digestion for those who are overwhelmed or depleted. These practices can be done together, in succession, or separately.
Cultivate Connection through Cuddling
Another effective and enjoyable way of feeling connected to yourself and others is to experience a comforting embrace. Enjoying some cuddle time with your favorite person, pet, or cozy item can nourish your sense of touch and connect you to healthy boundaries.
Make a point to leave a few extra minutes for cuddling before you get out of bed, steal a longer hug before parting ways in the morning, or enjoy a self-hug as you don your favorite articles of clothing. All of these will help you start your day from a place of warm, loving connection.
Gentle movements on the ground (or in your bed!) offer a similar effect. A few gentle yoga poses or just rolling around on the ground will help to ground vata, especially if you spend most of your days on screens.
Traditional practices—Rose Water or Ghee
Alternative practice—Light a Candle
Even before we all became screen addicts, our eyes were working overtime. As renowned Ayurvedic expert Dr. Robert Svoboda explains, our ability to harness the element of fire (which allows for vision) has defined our evolutionary dominance as a species; today, we’re similarly consumed by the fire-based images we carry around in our pockets and on our wrists.2
Giving our eyes a rest may seem impossible. Even if we’re not looking at a screen, we still need to see in order to move safely in the world, let alone experience the joy of seeing the faces, nature, and art that we love.
The hot, burning eyes many of us experience after a long day on a screen can be alleviated by a spritz of refreshing rose water. Likewise, lubricating ghee on or in the eyes can combat dryness. (First work with a practitioner if you want to try adding anything to your eyes.)
Find Clarity with Candlelight
You can also approach this sense-care with more of a homeopathic approach—feed the fire with fire. Lighting a candle in your space harnesses the power of sight in a clear, focused, and calming way—what we refer to as the energy of tejas.
You may choose to spend a few minutes softly gazing at the flame in a traditional meditation practice called trataka, or simply enjoy the presence of candlelight. As the candle burns, remember your healthy limits on work and other responsibilities. Because despite the saying, neither the candle—nor you—has two ends to burn from.
Traditional practices—Tongue Scraping and Oil Pulling
The Ayurvedic version of mouth care might be closest to our Western practices, and easiest to adopt since brushing the teeth is so commonplace.
While there’s some attention paid to hygiene in Ayurveda, ancient societies didn’t have to worry about cavities and plaque the way we do, since their causes—sugary foods—weren’t as prevalent. Instead, Ayurvedic oral care focuses on preparing the sense of taste for complete and accurate digestion.
The tongue reflects imbalances in our digestion as well as metabolic waste known as ama, which appears as a coating when we wake up in the morning. By scraping the tongue to remove the coating, then pulling with oil, we help to maintain a healthy oral microbiome.
This leaves the tongue clear to crave and interpret the tastes that will be most balancing in our meals during the day.
Cleanse Your Palate with Pranayama
Another way to experience this cleansing effect is perhaps a bit of a surprise—pranayama. Although breath work is more obviously associated with the air element, prana is our “life force”—which on earth is the element of water.
We are bodies of water living on a body of water, and through prana we can tap into this nourishing, enlivening element and its qualities of suppleness, strength, and mutability.
There’s a saying that “where attention goes, prana flows.” Simply paying attention to your breathing can become an exercise of mindful nourishment and connection to the rhythms of the earth.
Of course, you can also choose to practice more formally, with something like Nadi Shodhana or Sheetali pranayama, which is wonderful for balancing excess heat in the body or mind.
Because pranayama has such a profound effect on the nervous system, it is a great tool to turn to when digestion is impaired or when you find yourself turning to things that aren’t in alignment with what you really want or need.
Incorporating even a few minutes of pranayama into your morning or evening routine acts as a full body-mind palate cleanser so that you show up to your next activity (including sleep!) with all of your senses on board.
Traditional practices—Neti and Nasya
A human’s sense of smell is not very sensitive compared to other species, but if you ask the humans in your life they’ll probably have a thing or two to say about which smells they like and which ones they don’t.
Our noses are designed as filters, helping to clear out unwanted particles from the air as we breathe and walk through the world. You can think about those bits of dust, debris, plant particles, and even bugs as pieces of the earth element—which is associated with the sense of smell—floating around in space and air.
We were designed to handle a certain amount of earth in our prana, but the amount of pollution and artificial fragrances we encounter in the modern world can strain even the most discerning noses, resulting in a desensitized or highly sensitized sense of smell.
The Ayurvedic practices of neti and nasya are designed to support clear and clean nasal passages, ensuring we get high-quality oxygen.
Smell is the strongest sense involved in memory—aromas can bring to life full and detailed memories in an instant. The saying “the nose knows” reflects our past associations with different scents and the way our nervous system lights up with messages of safety or danger.
By practicing neti and nasya, these pathways to the brain stay clear and balanced so that we receive accurate information about those associations we get via smell. Besides personal memory, smell tells us whether something is full of good prana or not—the way that we gravitate toward fresh, fragrant flowers but avoid decaying ones.
Odor is a reflection of one’s life force—how much past they have versus how much presence.
Heighten your Scent and Senses with a Walk Outside
We sense this internal knowing when we breathe in through our nose, but we can also experience it through our entire body by walking. The steady, rhythmic pace of a gentle to brisk walk is a profound way to connect to the earth element while also balancing the erratic movement of vata in the mind.
Think of each step like a stream of healing prana working through the channels of your whole body—left then right, left then right, slowly bringing you back to center.
Walking in the morning, during the kapha time of day (6 a.m. to 10 a.m.), can keep us from getting stuck in memories and wake us up to the reality of our present moment—to smell the roses, literally and figuratively.
We ourselves become a more macro version of the bits of earth in the larger container of air and space through which we move—living memories that are not fixed but dynamic and responsive to our ever-new now.
Whether you choose a walking meditation with slow, mindful attention to each step, or a regular stroll through your neighborhood or nearby park, this form of body-mind exercise will keep prana circulating through your system long after you take off your sneakers.
In turn, it contributes to a healthy digestive agni—able to properly process and eliminate everything your senses encounter.